Yoga has become one of the hottest forms of exercise for everyone from professional athletes to health-conscious homemakers, but there's more to yoga than stretching. The discipline has been around in some form for thousands of years, and yoga has developed many specialized branches. Ashtanga yoga, sometimes called power yoga or royal yoga, combines dynamic poses, balance and breathing in graceful sequences called vinyasas.

All yoga has physical benefits, but ashtanga yoga could be the right workout for you if you're looking for a more rigorous workout than traditional hatha yoga. Yoga is appropriate for everyone, but choose a class that fits your level of experience to get the most from your practice.

Increased Flexibility

All yoga helps increase your range of motion, but ashtanga yoga's especially good at improving flexibility. The poses, or asanas, used in ashtanga yoga will be familiar to anyone who's taken a yoga class, but not every class puts them together in a sequence that flows from one asana to the next. That flow is one of ashtanga yoga's distinguishing characteristics. Dynamic movement can help you reach a wider range of motion, but avoid using momentum to pull your body into a pose. The benefits of the vinyasas come from the effort to reach the poses, not from seeing how far you can stretch. With regular practice, you'll find poses that were once out of reach now come easily, giving you a marker of progress.

Better Balance

Ashtanga yoga is excellent for improving your balance because it focuses on flowing from one pose to the next. To stay moving throughout a sun salutation or the six standing poses takes good balance and practice. Better balance is useful for more than holding a graceful tree pose; it also helps you perform better at anything involving movement. You use your sense of balance every time you climb a flight of stairs, carry groceries or catch a football. Like any other physical skill, you can improve it with practice, and every ashtanga yoga class emphasizes balance through standing and inverted poses.

Improved Strength

When you think of strength-building exercises, you typically think of lifting weights. In yoga, the weight you lift is yourself. Poses that emphasize holding your body weight on one foot or both hands are another form of strength training. Weight-bearing exercise is essential for maintaining bone density, so it's an essential part of any post-30 workout routine. Power yoga classes emphasize strength during pose sequences and are especially good at helping you maintain muscle mass. Even a strenuous yoga class won't help you develop bulky muscles, though; to add muscle, yoga practitioners must supplement their classes with dedicated strength training.

Healthy Weight Maintenance

Moving more helps you burn more calories, and that includes a vigorous ashtanga yoga workout. Depending on how often you practice, your overall level of activity and your current weight, you may find yoga enough to peel away excess pounds. Other dieters find yoga alone a slow weight loss method and add cardiovascular exercise and diet to their regimens. Once you've successfully reached your goal weight, regular yoga will help you keep in shape and give you greater muscle definition. If you're below your ideal healthy weight range, look for an ashtanga yoga class that emphasizes balance, coordination and strength over working up a sweat. You'll get the benefits of exercise without burning calories you'd like to keep.

If you're taking a formal class, your yoga instructor can help you correct your form, but all yoga classes stress the importance of listening to your body. Poses and sequences should feel like a workout, but they should never be painful. Ashtanga yoga can be challenging to yoga novices, but work at your own pace and take a break from a pose if you need it. Your instructor can also advise you about how to modify poses to work with your body. Don't let images of pretzel-like poses alarm you; everyone works at his or her own pace in a yoga class. Focus on your breathing and what your body's doing, and you'll get more out of your ashtanga yoga practice.

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